Women in Ministry

By Peter Corney

An address given at the inaugural Melbourne meeting of Christians for Biblical Equality, 24 October 2005.

I did not grow up in a churchgoing family but it had a strong background of “assumed egalitarianism”. It was the old Henry Lawson Australian spirit of egalitarianism – The ‘Jacks’ as good as his master’ kind. If you had to put my father in a political box he was a Deakonite Liberal. Everyone was equal but life required hard work and individual initiative.

Ours was a fairly typical Australian 1950s family. Dad worked in a steel foundry ( he had worked his way up to manage it but always kept his Union ticket!) My mother worked in the home and cared for the children.

Their marriage was very much a partnership – decisions were made together, money was managed together and most unusual for the times my father always helped my mother on washing day. In those days most woman did the washing on Mondays. We did it on Saturday mornings so dad could help, then we went to the football!

Of course as a young person I didn’t think anything of this, it was only later that realised it was not the way everyone operated. I assumed marriage was a partnership between equals who shared out the tasks.

My conversion to Christ and initial Christian nurture came through an interdenominational organisation and then through SU and later through CMS League of Youth. In most of these organisations woman ran and led things and took Bible studies along with men. The first missionaries I met were woman. My first youth group leader was a very capable young woman.

It never occurred to me that it might be otherwise.

It was not until I went off to train for the ordained ministry in Melbourne in 1960 that I began to be aware of issues like “headship” in marriage and arguments over woman’s ministry roles and the specific denominational positions on these matters.

In the late 60s and early 70s I was involved in youth and student ministry when the feminist movement hit the church. It was at that point that I had to start to think through my assumed, and as it turned out, partial egalitarianism.

It was a lecture tour in the 70’s by Roberta Hestenes that gave me a clue to the Biblical puzzle. Roberta made the point that under the old covenant only men bore the sign of the covenant promise – circumcision. But under the new covenant the sign of membership and the covenant promise was given to both woman and men – baptism.

Gal.3: 27-28 “All of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I then began to think through the issue from the perspective of an integrated Biblical theology not just on the basis of a few texts. What I discovered of course was that:

  1. In Gen. 1:26-27 God creates human beings in His own image “…..male and female he created them.”
  2. He gives to them both the mandate to manage the creation (v28.)
  3. I discovered that in Gen. 2:18 “helper” means “the other half, the one who corresponds to the other.”
  4. I saw in Gen.3:16 that the “ruling” of man over woman was part of the judgement and curse of the Fall not part of the original creation order.
  5. I then saw that God’s rescue plan, the plan of redemption for the fallen world, seeks to redeem this and to restore God’s original intention for the creation, including restoring male female relationships and removing the curse and Christian baptism is a sign of that.
  6. I then saw that Christian marriage is also to be a sign of redemption. It can be the place where men and women are given the great chance to work this out and experience the joy of the original creation order now. All the best and most healthy marriages I knew worked practically on this basis.
  7. I also saw that in Christian marriage we not only have the opportunity to work out this ideal of equal partnership but we also have the opportunity to restore many of the other relational disturbances caused by the fall and illustrated in Gen. 3&4. For example those contradictory feelings we all have like the desire for but the fear of intimacy or the desire for openness and vulnerability and yet our constant hiding from each other.

At the end of Gen.2: the husband and wife’s relationship is described in these beautiful words; “They were both naked and they felt no shame.” Gen. 3. changed all that. (see v.7-10). Physical, emotional and psychological openness and vulnerability is only possible in a deep relationship of trust, love, equality and mutual respect. That’s the high goal for every Christian marriage. In as much as we achieve that Christian marriages become a powerful sign of Redemption.

My wife Merrill and I have tried to follow the redemption pattern in our own marriage by:

  1. Mutual decision making.
  2. Complete equality, legally, and financially.
  3. Open discussion.
  4. Encouraging and supporting each others ministries, gifts and interests.
  5. Shared leadership within the family.
  6. A shared sense of humour that keeps the egos in check!

There are just two other things I would like to add at this launch of CBE in Melbourne:

First, there is a whole generation of young adult Christians out there in Evangelical and Pentecostal churches who have not been taught the principles that CBE represents. Some of us dropped the ball! We fell into the old trap of thinking ‘this battle’s been fought and won, this ground has been taken.” We forgot that every new generation has to be taught or the ground has to be retaken again. It is the same with the battle over social justice issues that was won for our generation of Evangelicals at Lausanne in the 70’s.

Second, God has given to those in the broadly Evangelical and Pentecostal tradition a great opportunity and responsibility at this moment in the Australian Church. The whole Protestant landscape has been dramatically changed over the last 25 years. The largest number of Christians attending church on Sunday and the largest churches in the nation are clearly now in this tradition. Liberal Churches and denominations are in terminal decline. Those holding to classical Christianity and historic orthodoxy are on the verge of taking charge of the Australian Protestant Church. But there are two things that could derail this great opportunity to renew the Australian Church and perhaps the nation. (a)Complacency or smugness and (b) Disunity.

If we are to realise this opportunity we must focus on what unites us and to discuss our differences with respect and in relationship, not taking pot shots from our foxholes. The roles of men and women in leadership is an issue where there are genuine differences of opinion and one that has the potential to divide us.

CBE believes, as I do, that equality, partnership and mutual respect are great ideals for Christian ministry and marriage. But they are also great principles for Christians who have differences but need to work together. The stakes are too high for us not to heed this message. The times call for wise and strategic as well as principled action.

I am thankful that Roberta Hestenes taught me 30 years ago to see the big Biblical picture. We need to keep the big picture of this great opportunity for the Australian Church before us as we work for the principles that CBE represents.

  • Kate Harrower

    Peter – your website looks wonderful! What a great idea. Thank you for placing this article here. I hope there will be more articles on this topic from you in the future.

  • admin

    Thanks Kate for your encouragement. Trust you are both well. Please pass on my regards to G. Cole

  • Denise Clarke

    thanks for this peter. But shouldn’t this thread be title “Women in ministry”?

  • Peter Corney

    Thanks Denise. Yes it should! Peter C